Which Drive Is Right for You?

After years of front-wheel-drive dominance, rear-wheel is making a comeback. But you'll want to weigh your options carefully

When buying a new car, most people agonize over the color, the horsepower, the safety rating, the fuel economy, even the number of cup holders. What is often overlooked is whether it comes with rear- or front-wheel drive. That decision can make a huge difference in terms of how and where you drive.

Why? Fundamentally, front-wheel-drive cars offer better traction in bad weather, courtesy of the grip created by the engine's weight over the driven wheels, whereas rear-wheel offers better performance. Honda, for example, offers front-wheel drive; Porsche, rear.

For decades, the U.S. was a rear-wheel nation. It wasn't until the oil crisis of the 1970s that new imports from companies such as Toyota (TM) and Honda (HMC) first exposed a wide number of Americans to front-wheel cars. (Europe and Asia have been front-wheeling it for generations.)

Besides traction, FWD cars offer other benefits. Without a driveshaft connecting the front power source to the back wheels, interior space is freed up and cars weigh less, meaning more fuel efficiency. The simplification also means fewer parts are required, meaning the cars cost less to build and to buy.

The sudden demand for front-wheel cars caught Detroit by surprise. In the 1970s and '80s, in their scramble to offer their own lighter, more fuel-efficient cars, quality was often sacrificed, clearing the way for more reliable imports to carve out a large chunk of the market.

Front-Wheel in Front

By the mid-1980s, however, successful new models like the Ford Taurus proved that Detroit could build front-wheel cars. Today, according to Automotive News, exclusive of pickups and SUVs, of the top 10 best-selling cars in the U.S. so far this year, only one is powered by its back wheels: 10th-ranked Ford Mustang (see BusinessWeek.com, 8/25/06, "Detroit Thoroughbred").

The most popular car in the country is the front-wheel-drive Toyota Camry, which sold more than 340,000 through September. Over the same period, the Mustang sold 133,000. The only other American make on the list is the fourth-ranked Chevy Impala, which sold 219,167.

Despite the enormous popularity of front-wheel drive, many driving enthusiasts maintain that rear-wheel drive offers the better experience, which explains why performance-oriented makers such as Mercedes and BMW make only rear-wheel cars. Even some imports have begun producing rear-wheel cars for certain segments. Toyota's luxury division, Lexus, now offers two such models, and Nissan's (NSANY) Infiniti at least three.

The reason is that a car's handling is in great part derived from the distribution of weight, and rear-wheel cars achieve divisions closer to the golden 50/50 ratio. Handling in normal conditions is generally better as well, since force is transferred rearward under heavy acceleration. The setup also benefits from increased towing capacity and a better steering radius.

Reinvesting in Rear-Wheel

Rear-wheel-drive cars sell better when performance and power are emphasized. Chrysler—a division of DaimlerChrysler (DCX), which also owns Mercedes—and Ford (F) have both had huge hits based on rear-wheel models, proving that the technology isn't the exclusive privilege of high-end sports cars.

Ford kicked off a muscle-car revival with the redesigned and rear-wheel Mustang. Chrysler's fortunes were temporarily buoyed by a rear-wheel performance sedan, the 300, based on a platform by Mercedes-Benz. Since Chrysler had switched to front-wheel production in the 1980s, it was the company's first rear-wheel performance sedan in 15 years.

Domestic manufacturers have lately begun reinvesting in some rear-wheel models. General Motors ( 2 Next Page

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